The Braves have built so much minor league depth at shortstop that by last summer they were making decisions on how to better utilize that stable of players, opting to move a couple of prospects to new positions.
Edward Salcedo, 20, a prized international free-agent signee two years ago, was moved from shortstop to third base at Class-A Rome, and 2010 first-round draft pick Matt Lipka switched from shortstop to center field last fall at the instructional league in Florida.
Lipka will play center field this year, likely at high-A Lynchburg. The Braves were pleased with how well he took to center field in the fall and believe his speed and athleticism are well suited for the position. He also worked extensively on his approach as a leadoff hitter during the instructional league.
Moving Salcedo and Lipka still left four shortstops whom the Braves consider promising in the minor league system: Tyler Pastornicky, who’s penciled in for the major league job in 2012, top prospect Andrelton Simmons, and defensively strong youngsters Nick Ahmed and Elmer Reyes.
Simmons, 22, is one of the highest-rated shortstop prospects in baseball and was judged the Braves’ No. 4 overall prospect by Baseball America after a 2011 season in which he hit .311 with a .351 on-base percentage at Lynchburg, winning the Carolina League batting title by a 21-point margin in his first full minor league season.
“I made my adjustments and it worked out pretty good,’ said Simmons, who is from Curacao, the island homeland of former Braves center fielder Andruw Jones.
Simmons, 22, was a second-round pick in 2010 out of Western Oklahoma State Junior College, where he drew more draft interest for the 98-mph fastball he displayed as a part-time closer than for his position-player potential. He wanted to play shortstop professionally, not pitch. The Braves agreed to give him that opportunity.
He had only one homer in 517 at-bats (131 games) but had 35 doubles and six triples. He drew only 29 walks, but Simmons struck out just 43 times in 2011 and has 57 strikeouts in 756 at-bats of minor-league ball.
His defense has never been a question. Simmons has extremely quick hands to go with his dynamic arm. In Baseball America’s midseason survey of Carolina League managers, he was voted the league’s best defensive shortstop, most exciting player and best infield arm.
“Very impressive player,” Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno said in November. “Really a good defensive shortstop. His skills – arm, hands, everything works extremely well. And offensively, one of the areas we concentrated on was strength. He concentrated more on the strength program [at instructional league] than playing in games.
“We decided this year in instructional league that we were going to have a group of players where it wasn’t going to be about innings and at-bats as much as getting stronger in the strength program. They did the baseball skills parts in workouts and everything, other than playing in the games, when they’d go ahead and concentrate on strength and conditioning.”
Manno was asked to compare Simmons with Pastornicky, 22, who hit .314 with a .359 OBP, seven homers and 27 stolen bases in 117 games last season in two minor league stops, including .365 with a .407 OBP in 27 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.
“Simmons and Pastornicky are different types of shortstops,” Manno said. “Pastornicky is kind of a live-body, quick-twitch [muscle] guy, can steal a base… He’s someone who plays shortstop with a little bit of urgency almost, where Simmons is more a natural, smooth-action type of infielder — he’s the kind of guy who can field the ball in the hole and make a good strong throw and still get a good runner out. Simmons has got a lot of one-motion actions defensively — field and transfer and throw, where everything is in one motion. Pastornicky is not that type of guy. Both are good players.”
Reyes, 21, struggled after a promotion to Class-A Rome (.177 with .228 OBP in 64 games) and ended up back at rookie-league Danville for a second year in a row. He hit .262 with a .695 OPS in 52 games for Danville, after hitting .294 with an .816 OPS there in 2010 in his first year in the United States.
Ahmed, a second-round pick in last year’s draft out of the University of Connecticut, hit .262 with a .346 OBP at Danville in his first stint in pro ball. The 21-year-old Massachusetts native had 19 extra-base hits (four homers) and 18 stolen bases in 59 games.
Between Ahmed and Reyes, one will likely be assigned to Rome and the other bumped up to Lynchburg. Based on Ahmed’s first-year performance, he seems more likely to get the high-A Lynchburg spot.
Although Pastornicky and Simmons have gotten most of the media attention since last fall, Manno said the Braves are pleased with their depth at shortstop and how it’s allowed them to possibly fill a couple of other future needs:
“Salcedo alternated with Lipka at shortstop [at Class-A Rome] early,” Manno said, ” then we decided to move [Salcedo] permanently to third base. We thought he looked comfortable there and was more consistent offensively when he played on the corner. He played down there for the entire instructional league and made good progress defensively. We’re real happy with the improvement he’s made…. A lot of it is the setup and feet, and that’s correctible with repetition. They get a lot of that in instructional league….”
Manno said of Ahmed: “A lot of fluid motion, good strong arm action… He’s got real good actions at shortstop. We think he’s going to be an above-average shortstop as well. With Pastornicky, Simmons, Ahmed — that’s a pretty good lineup at shortstop for us. And then we have a young player, Reyes, that we like. He’s flip-flopped between second and shortstop. He’s from Nicaragua, started last year at Rome and struggled, went back to Danville. But he’s got good actions. We hope he can settle in at shortstop.
“We’re pretty excited [about the shortstop position]. It’s good to have that depth.”